The Kurdish Peshmerga forces. AFP Photo.
In Iraq and Syria the United States and Russia are acting as the de-facto air forces for the central authorities in those two countries. Russian air power has helped the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad make highly notable advances against his enemies while American-led coalition air strikes are slowly helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces roll back the Islamic State (ISIS).
As the two major powers involved in the future of both Iraq and Syria Moscow and Washington are both committed to preserving those two nation states in the territorial forms which existed before ISIS symbolically dismantled the Sykes-Picot border in the summer of 2014.
Just in recent weeks we have witnessed the Russians move on from helping the Syrians secure the important western province of Latakia to giving close air support to simultaneous ongoing offensives in Aleppo in the north and the southern province of Deraa. In both areas they are succeeding in severing supply lines to opposition forces running from the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The Russians clearly want to help the Syrian regime regain control of the country’s frontiers to both cut-off their opponents’ access to the outside world and to bolster its claim to be the sole legitimate government over all of Syria and its people. Assad has made clear, in a recent interview with AFP, that his intention is to reconsolidate his regimes control and dominance over all of that war-torn country.
In the east the Russians have also been giving support to an isolated detachment of Syrian soldiers in the provincial capital city of Deir Ezzor. There Syrian soldiers retain hold over the city’s airport and surrounding environs and are the only thing standing in the way of a complete ISIS takeover. Russia recently air-dropped them supplies and carried out airstrikes against ISIS there. The Syrian regime doubtlessly wants to open more logistical supply lines to them and if they can perhaps send additional forces to give the regime a larger foothold in that corner of the country.
Such a strategy clearly indicates that Russia wants to keep Syria together by helping the regime reconsolidate its power and control over that fractured war-torn state. While it has commended the Syrian Kurds for their valiant efforts fighting Islamists like ISIS and views them as a workable partner (especially given the fact that they haven’t fought the Assad regime) Russia has stopped short of advocating any kind of meaningful autonomy for them.
In Iraq the Americans support the Iraqi bid to reclaim control over all of their territory. And while they do support the Kurds that support does not extend to backing their efforts to attain increased autonomy and self-rule, never mind independence (Washington strictly adheres to the parameters of the One Iraq policy). While the Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani has declared the end of Sykes-Picot ahead of its centennial the Americans and the Russians are making clear-cut moves to restore that very order. Neither is willing to fundamentally challenge the status quo upheld by their regional allies which rejects greater Kurdish autonomy or self-rule, let alone full-fledged independence.
Also what’s ironic about the fact that this coincides with the centennial of this order is the fact that borders may become re-solidified as a result of Baghdad and Damascus’s main backers seeking to decrease the other’s influence in each country. Not, in some ways, wholly unlike how imperial Anglo-Franco rivalry in that very same region saw those spheres of influence gradually shape and solidify those international boundaries and modern states.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Russia intensified its hitherto limited efforts against ISIS into a more wide-ranging air campaign in a bid to enable either Damascus and/or the Syrian Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to kick ISIS out of Raqqa and secure that area in order to decrease America’s role in Syria. Such a move would head off any American efforts to destroy the remnants of ISIS in Syria if the group is removed from Mosul in the not too distant future.
The United States has warned Baghdad not to permit or invite the Russians to expand their air campaign into Iraq, a country which is quite friendly with Assad and is the home of a coordination center between it and Damascus along with Moscow, Tehran and the Hezbollah militia, the so-called Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq, or 4+1, coalition. Russia is seeking to undercut waning American influence in Iraq (it sent its largest business delegation in years to Baghdad in recent days) and is also trying to win over the Syrian Kurds by giving them more decisive support. Likely knowing they will serve as a buffer and general nuisance to its new regional rival Turkey. Washington is in turn seeking to keep what it calls “moderate” oppositions in the game to try and secure some leverage in that country.
Such factors indicate that the Sykes-Picot order, whose death has been deemed long overdue by those who attribute the many injustices and instabilities in the region to it, could well be restored at least partially by the actions of these two increasingly rival world powers in the Middle East.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.